KPCC's John Rabe talks with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about "Mycroft Holmes," which he wrote with Anna Waterhouse. It tells the backstory of Sherlock Holmes's older brother, and comes out today in hardcover.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Basketball. Trump. Yadda yadda yadda.
You know all that stuff. What's much more interesting is that Kareem has long been a Sherlockian — that is, an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes — since he watched the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies on TV when he was a kid in New York.
"They called it 'Sherlock Holmes Theater,'" Kareem says, "and it was on every Saturday, and I used to watch it with some of my boys uptown in Manhattan. At that point, I thought that Sherlock Holmes was the greatest detective ever and I thought he was a real person."
That notion fell away, he says, when he was in high school and read the Holmes story "The Red-Headed League." "Holmes," he says, "really has it solved very early, but you don't realize that until the end, where he has it all together, and he just does it like he's going to lunch."
Kareem sums up Sherlock like this:
"Sherlock is a perfectionist. Sherlock wants to get it done right, he wants the criminals punished, he wants the innocent to walk. And not every legal system can achieve that. And Sherlock is able to see with clarity what has happened and identify the miscreants. And this is what people want to see in their justice system."
Kareem has written 11 books, but this is his first foray into Sherlockian fiction and his first novel, and he and Anna Waterhouse chose Mycroft Holmes as the focus, not his more famous brother Sherlock:
"Mycroft gave us a great big field to play in. He's only mentioned in 6 or 7 of the original stories, and some of the things that Sherlock says of him in those stories are remarkable. He says he's in the British government, but sometimes 'he is the British government.'" And this is a startling thing because at this time, Great Britain is a superpower."
In Conan Doyle's original Holmes stories, Mycroft is in his 40s or 50s, obese, cynical, and a recluse, and moves only between his rooms, his club, and his office.
(Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft in a Sidney Paget drawing)
But in "Mycroft Holmes," Mycroft is 23, fit, romantic, and adventurous ... and about to be sorely disillusioned: this is his backstory.
Mycroft's Watson is Cyrus Douglas, a black man from Trinidad, which lets Kareem explore two themes: the often ignored racial diversity of Victorian England...
"People see Victorian England as separate from all of the colonies, and in writing our story, we wanted to show how they were connected. People from all over the world that were British subjects ended up in London, and interacted with citizens, and you never see that in any depictions of Victorian London. It's always just white Britishers, and that wasn't the case. There were Chinese people, people from India, Burma, Africa, the Middle East."
... and Kareem's own family background:
"My family came from Trinidad. My grandfather emigrated to New York City in 1917. My grandmother was alive until I was 12 years old. She used to tell stories about Loup Garou (a child-eating demon) and facts about Trinidad. My grandparents went from Belize City to Mobile, Alabama, on a boat, and then took a a train from Mobile to New York City, and my grandmother had no idea of the size of the earth and she kept thinking that the train was going to run off the land and into the ocean because how could a train travel for three days and not hit water ... not ever having left the island of Trinidad. That was always a big joke in the family."
With "Mycroft Holmes," Kareem has been warmly welcomed into the Sherlockian family, and the Baker Street Irregulars, America's preeminent Sherlockian group, were delighted when he made a surprise visit to their annual dinner.
(Kareem at 2015 Baker Street Irregulars meeting. Credit: I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast)
Click the arrow in the audio player above to listen to the (more or less) full version of my interview with Kareem, which includes much we couldn't fit into the radio broadcast.